moral equivalent of war

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Senior Member
When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr.President, don't issue us BB guns.

Hi, everyone!

How to understand "moral equivalent of war"?

I only can see: moral =war(it must be wrong.:))

Besides, issue means debate here?

thank you
  • cropje_jnr

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    I would imagine that it means a moral issue (e.g. abortion) that is so hotly debated that it is like a war.

    As for 'issue', it means 'distribute', 'give', 'pass out', etc. here.

    More context would be useful - for instance what the term 'moral equivalent' refers to, if you know.


    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    It may be a phrase that is more familiar in the US.
    The moral equivalent of war is a struggle in which the stakes are as high as in a war, and require the same kind of commitment and effort, but in which the goal is accomplished by other means than violence.

    Edit: The BB guns are metaphoric. "If you are are asking us to engage in a difficult struggle for something significant, don't give us inadequate tools."

    Edit #2: BB guns are air guns and shoot pellets, as explained in this Wiki article. Although the article doesn't say so, they were once regarded a suitable gifts for boys who were not yet old enough to handle real guns, that is, they were regarded as akin to toys.
    Last edited:


    English - English
    I Googled the term "moral equivalent of war" and found several articles.

    Apparently (according to wikipedia) the term dates back to an essay written in 1906 by William James (

    The term appears to have been used in philosophical debates, referring to arguments over whether one side in a conflict is morally superior to the other, or if they are morally equivalent.

    Having noted that, I believe the original speaker in flyingcat2008's post is using the phrase in the same manner that Cagey describes it. That's certainly how I interpreted it. My best guess is that the speaker was intending "the conversational equivalent of war" or perhaps "the rhetorical equivalent of war" or something along those lines.

    I suppose this is one of those examples where a phrase or word is "hijacked" by usage and given a new accepted meaning at odds with its origins. (Is there a word for that process?)
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    English (British)
    When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr.President, don't issue us BB guns.
    The original context of this quotation is in President Jimmy Carter's statement at the time of the oil crisis of his day. He was citing what other people had said to him, or things that he had heard people say on the matter.

    "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."
    And this is one of the most vivid statements: "Our neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife."
    And this one from a labor leader got to the heart of it: "The real issue is freedom. We must deal with the energy problem on a war footing."
    And the last that I'll read: "When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr. President, don't issue us BB guns."
    (bold emphasis added)

    Taking account of the context, I believe that the phrase "moral equivalent of war" meant that although the situation was not a war in the traditional sense of armies attacking each other perhaps to defend territory, there was a moral equivalence because the US (and other parts of the western world) were in a fight for survival, were suffering badly because of foreign extremists, that these foreign actions were seen as deliberately hostile, and robust action had to be taken.

    That "robust action" might involve retaliation against foreign governments and subversive organizations. But it also implies that things at home had to change just as they would in wartime: the people needed to rally in support of the national cause; people needed to be ready to make sacrifices; the government had to make "tough decisions" that might not be very popular, perhaps involving austerity or other restrictions.

    In all these ways and others, the situation could be seen as the "moral equivalent" of being at war - not the guns and bombs but the changes in the "public mood" and the policies that the government had to (or should) pursue.
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